Recently killed Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen

Recently killed Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen October 10, 2011

Navy atheist, Zachary Sneddon wrote:

Aggressor or not, on foreign soil or not, Anwar al-Awlaki was a natural-born American citizen; he never renounced his citizenship, and that makes him a traitor, not a foreign combatant. Treason is the highest crime in our law code, but it is still a federal crime, and as a citizen he had exactly the same rights and entitlements to a fair and open trial that you or I do. How does THAT make you feel?  -Zachary Sneddon

This launched a pretty amazing conversation that’s still going on in the formerly secret foxhole atheist Facebook group. How do I feel about it?

Conflicted, man. In some ways I feel this line of reasoning contributed to the death toll at the Jonestown Massacre. But, I can’t disagree with you either.  -Justin Griffith

The conversation brought up so many side-issues that are incredibly important factors. Constitutionality, ethics, the other American also killed who is often glossed over in media reports, trials in absentia…

What are your thoughts? Are your thoughts in line with U.S. and/or international law?


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Insightful Ape

    Well of course I wish we lived in a perfect world where this guy could be brought to trial. But in reality, he lived in a lawless area where the possibility of his arrest and extradition was nill, for all practical purposes. And in the meantime he was going to incite more violence and leave even more bodies in his wake. The Fort Hood victims had rights too.

    In reality whether this guys was a citizen or not is not even the point. I am bothered more by the loss of life among civilians in such attacks, who are not citizens, then by the death of this guy.

  • I’m not American, so take this as you will… Your constitution is essentially dead. There have been stabs at it throughout the years, but since 9/11 there has been an all out assault on it. The killing wound was probably the misnamed Patriot Act, and at this point it’s nothing more than a lifeless husk for your politicians to hoist as a religious totem and convince the people it’s still alive.

  • kraut

    I have to concur with lavalamp – the American constitution has become so “holy” as to be meaningless after the death knell of the patriot act.

    As to the killing of Awlaki – he was allegedly involved in preparing plans for attacks, he was also residing with other combatants. Does that not make him a legitimate target for counter measures, citizen or not?

  • jakc

    5th amendment protections are not limited to US citizens; a non-American arrested in the US has the same due process rights as a citizen. The real problem here is the idea of the war on terror and its open-ended nature. It is against the law to simply shoot a suspect without making an attempt to arrest the person, but it is not against the rules of warfare to kill an enemy without warning. Policing terrorism implies limits that the war on terror doesn’t. Are we at war? Then Al-Awlaki’s right to a trial for treason is the same as a Rebel soldier in 1863 (a soldier who might have been an unwilling conscript). The difficult questions are not about the rights of citizens, but about the conflict between war powers and police powers and when each ought to be used.

  • unbound

    Ignoring whether we have a functional constitution anymore or not, I think there is a bit a sticky problem trying to paint this as a simple image.

    He was a US Citizen. But he is also actively involved in attacking the US. If we take the terrorist element out of it (for a brief moment), and look at it as if it was a traditional war, would we really expend massive effort to capture instead of kill someone who crossed the line to the other side, and was shooting at us? Of course not, we’d shoot him along with all of the other soldiers that were attacking us.

    The complication is how to treat these “armies” of the terrorist factions. Do we treat them using police actions, or military actions? And, most likely, there is not one single answer that works best for this situation.

    I definitely take a neutral stance on this issue. I simply don’t have enough information to know if a police action would have been more appropriate for this situation over military action. And, in not knowing what would have been appropriate, I really can’t say if this was done wrong or not.

  • mck9

    [A]s a citizen he had exactly the same rights and entitlements to a fair and open trial that you or I do. How does THAT make you feel?

    Allow me to rearrange that a bit, without changing its meaning:

    As citizens you and I have exactly the same rights and entitlements to a fair and open trial that he did. How does THAT make you feel?

  • In WWII there were Americans who went to Germany to fight for Hitler before the US got involved in the war. If they were on the other side shooting at Americans they would get shot at like any other Axis soldier. If they were captured they wouldn’t be treated like POW’s, they would have been charged with treason.

    IMHO, an American citizen, who chooses to be a combatant on the field of battle (which is almost anywhere in the world for Al Qaeda) is fair game.

  • drlake

    I fail to see why Awlaki’s citizenship is an issue. That suggests that it is OK to kill those who aren’t US citizens, but if someone is a citizen and engaged in EXACTLY the same activity we can’t kill them without a trial. How does that make sense? It is either OK to use violence against those outside our borders who are making war on us or it isn’t, and it really shouldn’t matter where they were born.

    Now, you can argue that the government shouldn’t be assassinating enemy leaders, and based on that argument this would not be a legal act. I don’t agree, but at least it is a position that makes sense.

    If Awlaki were in the US or we were to capture him on the battlefield, then a trial would make sense, but given that he’s voluntarily joined an organization that has declared itself at war with the US, a trial is a formality I see no need for.

  • abb3w

    Legally, I suspect that some of the Constitutional i‘s weren’t dotted and t‘s weren’t crossed. And, yes, this bothers me a bit.

    More practically, he was alleged to be involved in aid-and-comfort action (or perhaps merely 18 USC § 2385 violations) but had placed himself beyond the reach of US police arrest. In particular, he was beyond US borders – a situation where use of the military as posse comitatus has not traditionally been barred by law.

    The intent to kill him wasn’t all that secret. While the US did not offer an explicit choice, if he had publicly announced his intent to return to face trial (and potentially vindication), I’m hopeful that they would not have assassinated him. I’d also hope they at least gave some consideration to whether they could use military force to arrest him without significant risk to the soldiers. (Though a quick “Nope; can’t do it safely” seems the likely answer, a man’s life would seem worth at least the five seconds thought to consider it.) It would seem a little more respectful the the principle of the rule of law to have said “surrender yourself to face trial solidly under the law and its protections, or face the less finely controlled power of potentially lethal military force” to make the choice explicit. Not that I have much doubt that he would have refused, but it makes for a smoother transition from the battlefield of the courtroom to the battlefield of war.

    Idealists (particularly liberal ones) might even object to this much compromise on the sanctity of life and liberty, but I’m more of a pragmatist.

  • Art

    I’m not sure the Patriot Act, as much as I despise it and wish it eliminated, has much to do with it. The US law enforcement has never had a whole lot of qualms about executing US citizens when push comes to shove. Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde were essentially executed without resort to trial.

    The National Guard machine gunning striking coal miners, they even tried to use airstrikes but were thwarted by the weather, Kent State and other military shooting of civilians in the 60s, the 1967 Detroit riot being perhaps the worse, are all less culturally fresh but they also apply. All of these were committed long before the Patriot Act.

    The claim that we are a nation of laws and only resorts to execution without trial as a last ditch option is demonstrably wrong.

  • SabsDkPrncs

    I am an American living and working in the United Arab Emirates and I am not associated with the military. Awlaki was killed too close for comfort for me, especially when reading some of the commentary on the story. For me, it’s alarming that any evidence of his being a traitor is a state secret. There is evidence of me hating on the government, I live in the Middle East, and this drone strike took place about 1100 miles from where I sit right now. If I were killed in a concentrated drone strike would anyone decry it? Or would my family’s concerns get swept under the rug because circumstantial evidence showed I could be a traitor and if I were a good American, I wouldn’t be here? Just because due process might be hard, he was still an American, and he was not committing any acts that were an immediate danger that would justify his immediate death. That’s why if you shoot an intruder you’re defending yourself, but if you shoot someone walking past your house screaming “I’m going to rape your mother” it’s murder.

    • drlake

      Awlaki’s membership in AQIP is not a matter of debate, he was proud of it. He was actively engaged in calling for American muslims to join AQ. He was in contact with Nidal Hasan prior to his shooting rampage on Ft. Hood, and he encouraged it. None of these are “alleged” connections to terrorist attacks on the US, they are all quite clear and public.

      There is no more injustice to killing Awlaki than there was to killing bin Laden. Neither were killed because they “hating on the government”, so unless you actually join AQ and head to Pakistan or Yemen I suspect you are quite safe.

  • Dunc

    he was allegedly involved in preparing plans for attacks, he was also residing with other combatants. Does that not make him a legitimate target for counter measures, citizen or not?

    See, the key word there is “allegedly”. Are you really happy to give the state an uncontested right to extra-judicial execution on the basis of mere allegations? Bearing in mind that the information which forms the basis of these allegations frequently comes from various rather opaque “intelligence” sources, including both the torture of other people who were alleged to have terrorists contacts, and straight-forward cash deals? Haven’t we already heard enough cases where information obtained from such means turned out to be completely bogus to be entirely comfortable with this sort of thing? For ten grand in cash, I’m prepared to allege that you’re AQ’s latest second-in-command…

    If you think the state has the right to rub you out on the basis of an allegation, then you have no rights. None at all. Is that really what you want?

  • It’s not clear to me what citizenship has to do with the issues raised. Many Constitutional protections, including those in criminal law, aren’t restricted to citizens. An Italian or Saudi who commits murder in the US has the same rights to trial by jury, to confront witnesses, and to an attorney, as does a US citizen. Outside criminal law, foreign citizens also enjoy Constitutional protections to free speech and religion, while they are in US jurisdiction. If Alabama were to pass a law banning only foreigners from practicing Islam while legally in the US, the federal courts would quickly overturn that.

    From the other side, being a US citizen doesn’t protect someone from acts of war committed by the US. There have been US citizens who fought on the opposite side of just about every war the US has engaged. And there have been rebellions against the US, starting with Shay’s rebellion.

    So I don’t see how US citizenship has any bearing on the issue. Which leaves the question: When is it legal for the president to order the assassination of individuals? And that is an important question. I just don’t see where the citizenship of the target comes into play when answering it.

  • Without this American citizen bringing the al Qaeda message to English speakers, the al Qaeda brand is dead:

  • kraut

    “See, the key word there is “allegedly”. Are you really happy to give the state an uncontested right to extra-judicial execution on the basis of mere allegations?”

    I am not happy with any of this.

    America however is engaged in war in Afghanistan with the Taliban and its associates, and in such a situation – if you are defined as a combatant, which you are if you are residing with the enemy and have the appearance of furthering their military plans – in my opinion you are a legitimate target.

    Think of it in WW2 – was there any discussion that the General Stab of the German Army was not a legitimate target? If you were a member, you were a combatant. Same applies here.

  • lordshipmayhem

    I find this parallels any other individual throughout history who is openly attempting to violently overthrow their own government. He is as much a target for the American military as the Confederate infantryman in Pickett’s charge, or the Brooklyn boy who went to his parents’ home in Italy in 1938 and ended up drafted in Mussolini’s army.

    He was a proud member of an organization that was dedicated to the destruction of the free world. He died of wounds received in an attack inflicted upon him by one of his targets.

    In terms of law enforcement, think of the SWAT sniper killing the hostage-taker. In this case, the hostages were those of us who don’t want to live in an Islamic theocracy.

    I have no major problems with it.

  • Len

    This matter can be resumed to a very simple set of principles in my mind. He qualified as a combatant under international law, most notably the Geneva Convention. If you agree he was a lawful combatant (and look at his activities in more detail if you are not sure if he is) then the protections of the constitution don’t apply, laws and protections applying to parties to an armed conflict do apply.

    He was engaged by a soldier acting under lawful orders given by a superior officer. This chain of lawful orders goes all the way back up the chain to the president. The orders were issued under RoE’s. RoE’s are lawful orders and are based on the domestic law of the country that formulates them. International laws of armed conflict and domestic laws represented by RoE’s were respected.

    Likewise if you claim that the order issued by the president was unlawful that does not absolve the soldiers who carried it out from blame. For every subordinate in the chain to have passed or carried out this order they must believe it is a lawful order. If they believe if to be an unlawful order they have a duty not to obey it. Condemning elected officials for issuing unlawful orders tars the military with the same brush as we must not carry out unlawful orders.

    My 2 cents